From the January 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

If You Want Something Done, Ask a Busy Person

Make yourself a more productive advisor by taking more time off

When I work with advisors on consulting projects, I have only one requirement: You have to talk to me over the phone every other week for one hour. But, at the beginning of last fall, I had an unusual thing happen to me. Due to my clients taking vacations and other conflicts, all my consulting phone appointments got packed into one week, which gave me a completely clear calendar the next week. It was so great, I scheduled another two weeks the same way, with one very busy week, then a down week. It worked so well, I’ve been scheduling a busy week, then a down week ever since.

I’d always thought my schedule was full, with preparation for each call, the call itself, and follow-up work afterward. But, after going through that cycle twice, I realized that I could do all my calls in just two weeks a month. They are busy weeks, to be sure, but manageable: Knowing what I need to get done makes me focused, and way more efficient. And I’m motivated by being freed up in the other two weeks to work on long-term projects for clients, do research on the industry, talk to strategic partners for clients, do more writing, make annual or semi-annual client visits, and have more speaking engagements without the nightmare of trying to do client calls from the road.

Pretty cool, huh? Now, here’s the dumb part: I’ve had my clients using the same tight-schedule strategy for many years, with great success. But, like most of us, I always “knew” that my schedule was too tight to tighten any more—until reality slapped me in the face. At the beginning of a new year, if I can offer independent advisors one piece of advice that can change your life, it’s to force yourself to take more time off each week or month. I’ve found that we can almost always do the same amount of work in less time by allowing fewer distractions, and those extra days off you get in return can exponentially raise your quality of life.

In my case, I challenge myself to get my work done so that I can have the next week “off.” To do that, I have to stay focused and not let myself get distracted by requests for time-consuming tasks by people who aren’t my clients (including my husband), by time-eating phone calls, and most importantly, by personal issues—the friend and family drama that can really suck up your time and energy. In fact, I have a theory that for the most part, we create all this drama that seems to fill our lives today—we do it to fill our time because we don’t have enough to do.

By giving ourselves enough to do each day, we reduce the need to get involved in all these outside issues, and consequently start realizing how petty and unimportant most of that stuff is. The small number of outside issues that actually do need to be dealt with can almost always wait until your days off, which provides us with a very useful litmus test: Ask yourself whether a particular issue can wait or does it really require immediate action? Then, the fact that you’re going to have to deal with these issues on your days off provides additional discipline: Do you really want to use your free time to deal with this? You’ll be surprised at your new perspective on most of these distractions: “No, it doesn’t need to be done now, and no, I don’t want to spend my free time doing it either.”

What we’re talking about here is becoming more efficient by allowing yourself less time. In the past three months, I have done some of the greatest work I have ever done, and done it with less time. It works just as well with my advisor clients. For instance, one of my clients was always complaining about how much time he spent at the office and how little time he got to spend at home with his wife and kids. He’d become an independent advisor to have a better lifestyle than his former corporate job, but he didn’t feel it was working out that way.

Having worked with him for years, I knew we had built a very efficient independent practice, with very good people in the right jobs. So, I couldn’t understand why he needed to spend so much time at the office. And I suspected that he, like most folks, was wasting a lot of his time on personal issues, surfing the Internet, gossiping with employees, social media, and simply taking longer than he needed on many projects. The reality of office life is that once you’ve determined you “have” to be there for a specific number of hours, you’ll find things to fill that time. The irony is that inefficient working mentality also leads to procrastination, and you’ll find yourself working even more hours on projects you should easily have been able to get done during the day.

So, I got him to make a commitment that he would take every Monday off and absolutely could not work on the weekend. Of course, he didn’t want to do it, but we agreed we’d just try it for one month. If it didn’t work, he could go back to five-day weeks. The key was the commitment. He had to agree that he would take Mondays off no matter what needed to be done. Because this is so much easier said than done, I took out a little insurance: We had his wife schedule things they would do together on the first few Mondays. (Believe me, the prospect of disappointing your wife or husband can be a very powerful motivator.)

Naturally, our little experiment worked. My client found that he could get just as much work (if not more) done in four days as he had been doing in five, and it also forced him to delegate to his highly capable staff. To do that he programmed himself to not get involved, to not get pulled into the drama his relatives seem to have always going on, or to the drama of employees. (Write this down: If your employees have office drama, they don’t have enough to do! If you as the employer get sucked into it, you don’t have enough to do either!) By making this commitment to himself, his wife and me, his reward was a day off.

And the extra day off every week literally gave him a whole new attitude. He and his wife could go away for long weekends, schedule mini-vacations, work on big projects around the house, or just hang out. But no matter what they did with that extra day, he felt that his work was now supporting the lifestyle he wanted, and his attitude toward work—and life—changed dramatically. In fact, it changed so much that when I have my every other week call with him, his voice is different and he and I no longer chit-chat about little things; we get to work, get it done and move on.

I’m not sure why this is true, but the difference between two days off every week and three days off is more than just the 50% increase that it technically is. Maybe it’s because it’s not the commonly accepted schedule. Or maybe we just get a lot more disconnected from the office. Personally, I think it’s because you’re able to take a step back, and look at your work from a better perspective. But whatever it is, it’s dramatic—I highly recommend that you give it a try.

I believe that regularly getting a bigger perspective on your job and your business is one of the keys to happiness. This can be accomplished not only by taking more time off (which is essential), but also by periodically taking an extended time away from the office. As an employee perk, one of my clients gives employees a five week sabbatical every five years. I just got a picture of how powerful that much time away can be.

This firm is in California and has a senior employee who was clearly overwhelmed in her job. A year ago on my annual visit to their office, she was stressed and frustrated, cried in my meeting with her, and was generally losing it. Fortunately, she was due for sabbatical in a few months. During her time away, she spent time with her daughter, visited family on the East Coast and completed some big projects around the house.

When she got back, she was a totally different person—so different I couldn’t even explain it to my consulting client. She was calm, happy, and I’ve never seen her more productive. So, I asked her what changed. She said: “In my time away, I became objective about my job. I missed it, I missed the people I work with. I realized I really liked the company and that I wanted to stay there long-term.” As I do with all my client employees from time to time, I asked her what she would change about her job. She said: “Nothing.” I’ve never had an employee say that, and I would have never guessed that it would come out of her mouth.

To be successful, we have to work hard. But in my experience, there are many things about an office environment that makes us less efficient and less productive than we could be. Regularly taking more time away from the office can give us a better perspective on what we do and why we do it—and it can create a powerful incentive to be more efficient and more productive. It’s working for me, and many of my clients: As we enter another new year, I strongly encourage you to give it a try. It can change your life, too.

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